When Amy Mitchell Gagel and her husband, David, adopted their 4 ½-year-old daughter RaeAnn, they knew she had heart problems, but they never dreamed of the journey RaeAnn would take them on.
Gagel, now of Hamilton, Georgia, earned her bachelor’s degree in music from PBA in 2000. She is a stay-at-home mom and medical advocate for their daughter, and David is a worship pastor.
RaeAnn’s story has a happy ending. With her new heart from a transplant, the spunky 7-year-old runs around the house barefoot, tussles with her two older siblings and hangs backward off the jungle gym.
But in the first year after the couple adopted RaeAnn from China, she had three open heart surgeries and spent more than 100 days in the hospital. The next 11 months included a Make-A-Wish trip to see Moana at the Disney Resort in Hawaii and mercifully few medical crises.
In October 2019, RaeAnn was in Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, undergoing tests in preparation for a heart transplant when she went into cardiac arrest. The medical team performed CPR for 45 minutes and put RaeAnn on a life support machine.
When the team was trying to connect RaeAnn to the life support machine, her femoral artery ruptured. The doctors thought even if RaeAnn were to recover from the ordeal, she would lose her leg. Plus, after 45 minutes of interrupted blood flow to the brain, it was unlikely that she would ever be the same.
RaeAnn’s vascular surgeon did her first pediatric surgery to insert a femoral artery and eventually, RaeAnn walked out of the hospital without any lasting brain damage.
“She shocked everyone. They did not think she was going to make it,” Gagel said.
The following month, doctors inserted a medical device into RaeAnn’s heart to help it pump while she waited for a transplant. The machine requires a bulky external battery pack that petite RaeAnn had to carry wherever she went. At that time, she was the smallest child at Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital to ever receive the Medtronic mechanical heart pump.
Meanwhile, Gagel completed training on the device in hopes that her daughter would be the first patient from the children’s hospital to go home with the pump while they waited for a transplant.
Instead, they got a miracle. On Feb. 18, 2020, a medical review board approved her for the transplant list. A day later, the insurance company did the same, and she was added to the list. Twenty-six hours later, her parents got the call that there was a heart available.
On Feb. 21, 2020, little RaeAnn got her new heart.
Finding a heart donor isn’t easy. The person had to have the correct size heart, a compatible blood type and, in RaeAnn’s case, a predisposition to high blood pressure in the lungs. Her heart came from an adolescent donor who had asthma, which accounted for the high lung pressure.
“At the end of the day, you could only say that it was God,” Gagel said. “Anything the doctors wanted in a heart for RaeAnn, they got.”
Although there were other children listed before RaeAnn on the transplant waiting list, they did not meet the criteria for that heart, Gagel said. More than 100,000 people are waiting for lifesaving organ transplants, and 7,000 people in the U.S. die every year because organs are not donated in time, according to Donate Life America.
Palm Beach Atlantic’s Warren Library is illuminated in blue and green this week in honor of Donate Life Spirit Week and National Donate Life Month. Palm Beach Atlantic is participating in the organ donation awareness week for the first time at the request of the Life Alliance Organ Recovery Agency, a nonprofit that saves lives through organ donation and transplantation.
The Gagels know that RaeAnn’s new heart came to them out of a great loss for another family. This March, they celebrated one year without any rejection of RaeAnn’s transplant. The doctors tell the family that the heart is “at home in her body.”
“We treasure that heart, and we will always teach RaeAnn to treasure that heart,” Gagel said. “It was such a precious gift. For a heart to be at home in RaeAnn, it had to be very special.”
RaeAnn received the gift of life, and one of her doctors gained the gift of eternal life. The doctor did not believe in God when RaeAnn went into cardiac arrest. However, he sensed God telling him, “You have to save her life. I have big plans for her,” Gagel recounted. The doctor has since become a Christian.
The Gagels cheered him on during his subsequent baptism, and David Gagel is teaching him how to live as a Christian. Meanwhile, Amy Gagel disciples three nurses, including one who became engaged to the doctor. David Gagel will officiate their upcoming wedding.
Amy and David Gagel knew God had them at the hospital not only for RaeAnn, but for sharing the gospel. They prayed for RaeAnn’s doctors before every surgery and for other parents in the grip of hopelessness.
“When we follow Christ, it’s not just about us,” Gagel said. “God has something else in store. God wanted to use her story to help other people. It’s really humbling and honoring to be a part of all that.”
Photo 1: RaeAnn Gagel swings from the jungle gym after her heart transplant.
Photo 2: RaeAnn and Amy Gagel pose for a photo while RaeAnn was in the hospital undergoing procedures for her heart condition.
Photo 3: RaeAnn Gagel poses for a photo with one of her doctors on the anniversary of her heart transplant.
Photo 4: David, Amy, Eliana, RaeAnn and Isaac Gagel pose for a family photo.